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Guest Post! “If I come out to my family, will they stop making offensive jokes already?”

Bruce Campbell looking bloodied and confused.

Like Ash, I want to help! It just takes me a second...a long second...to figure out how.

Question:  How is coming out to your family like admitting that you’ve never seen The Evil Dead in a room full of nerds/filmmakers/filmmaking nerds?

Answer:  Those two things are in no way similar. Which is why I called in reinforcements for this question. Please welcome Julie and Jessica, the filmmaking duo known as King is a Fink.  They don’t need secret identities or quasi-military titles because superhero is their day job.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My family is great compared to most–my parents love us, my relationship with my siblings is good now that we’re all adults, we’re financially stable, etc. But I’ve had persistent problems getting them to stop making homophobic, racist, and/or sexist comments. When I tell them to stop, I usually get hit with the “it’s a joke, lighten up” excuse, and because there are more of them than there are of me I’m very quickly overruled.

Two out of the three categories are personally hurtful to me because I’m a gay woman, not that my family knows it (er, the gay part, I mean). Their casual homophobia so pervades all our conversations, especially the ones I have with my siblings, that I’m far too scared to come out to them. Unfortunately, this also makes the tactic of “this is personally upsetting to me, please stop talking like that for my sake” too frightening to use.

Just saying “stop” repeatedly or refusing to continue a conversation until they stop just gets me ridiculed by all of them, which is very upsetting to me, especially since my older brother was verbally and physically abusive to me throughout our childhood. (He’s apologized for it and our relationship is much better now, but I still find myself triple-checking what I want to say before I say it so he won’t blow up at me, which makes confronting his casual prejudiced attitudes even harder.)

I feel like I’m out of options. The sexism and homophobia especially makes me feel unwelcome around them, but I don’t have any effective way to get them to stop, and it’s made talking to them or visiting (they all live in the same city; I go to college elsewhere) really hard.
Do you have any advice for dealing with this?

Thank you,
Frustrated and Upset

Hey, F&U,

First, your letter broke our hearts. We both remember being in your shoes, knowing that we needed to come out to our families, but being scared to rock the boat. You couldn’t have come to a better place for this advice. In fact, we’re going to give you the advice that we wish someone would have given to us way back when. But it’s going to take a little bit to get there. Stick with us, F&U: this ride is worth the wait, and, in all modestly, we’re completely right.

We have some good news for you and some bad news. Because we’re the big gay advice givers in this scenario, we’re going to go with the good news first. So that you like us a little bit longer.

  • Good News = Yay! You’re in college! You’re an adult! You can eat Big Macs or cookies for every meal (if you want to), and you get to make your own decisions about where you go and who you spend your time with. This rocks!
  • Bad News = Oh, crap. You’re in college, and you’re an adult. You can eat Big Macs or cookies for every meal (we don’t advise it), and you have total control over all of your own decisions, including who you spend your time with. Double crap – this applies to your family.

Growing up and figuring yourself out can be tricky, especially when you find that you’ve grown up and out of ruts your family is in. When we’re kids, what our parents do and think and say is just ‘the way things are.’ As we get older, we start to see that our parents are just people. What we do next can be a little dicey.

When some realize that their opinions/ways of life have diverged from their parents’, they keep their thoughts to themselves. This is the easier path (i.e. your current approach). You don’t ruffle any feathers, and your family members get to stay the same ‘great compared to most’ bigoted, sexist, homophobic people they’ve always been. The downside: you suffer silently, harboring strong negative feelings toward their family members that will eventually make it so that you don’t visit often. We know that you can’t imagine not being with your folks for the holidays right now, but, trust us, if you continue biting your tongue and stewing when your family is making fun of Modern Family and Ellen DeGeneres at the dinner table, you will eventually find a more supportive ‘family’ to spend your free time with. It doesn’t sound like you want to do this, though, so we highly recommend that you do what we’re about to advise: tell them the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.

Step One: Tell your family that you’re gay either individually prior to holiday break – this was Captain Awkward’s suggestion (Use a letter! It gives you the chance to say everything you need to say, and them some reaction time. <3, CA) – or go balls out and do it during a toast right before your dad starts carving the holiday ham. Okay, that last part is a joke (because only, like, 20% of lesbians even eat ham). It’ll probably be easiest to tell one trusted parent or other family member older than yourself first so that you have some support while you make your way through the rest. You don’t have to come out individually to all of your aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins: word gets around. We totally understand that it’s scary to come out to your family, even under the best circumstances. But you can do it. We survived.

Step Two: Give your family a chance to digest the news. Remember, you’ve known for a while, and even if they’re the coolest, nicest people ever, they’re going to need a little time to catch up.

Step Three: Do NOT leave this part out —> tell your parents/siblings that you were scared to tell them that you were gay because of all of the homophobic things they’ve said in the past. Tell them that it made you feel unwelcome in their home. Tell them that it greatly upset you. They need to hear this, and they will probably be shocked that you think they’ve said anything that can be construed as homophobic. Let them know that you’re telling them, because you hope they’ll be more sensitive to it now that they know more about you. Tell them that you’re telling them because you WANT to be IN this family instead of on the OUTside of it.

Can we guarantee they’re going to stop saying insensitive things in front of you? Nope. But they might think twice before saying homophobic things in front of you. Chances are that they don’t say racist things in front of people of other races, right? Why? Because that’s rude, and we’re willing to bet that your family prides itself on its manners. Therefore, maybe they won’t say homophobic things in front of you if they know you’re one of these mythological homos they’ve heard so much about. It’s worth a shot.

Of course, assuming that your parents are kind and accepting, there are other benefits to coming out to them, namely that you’ll get to share your life with them, including your joys and your heartbreaks. You sound like you have a relatively close-knit family. Give your parents a chance to be a part of your life. Let them know more about you so that they can best support you.

You can’t control what your family is like, but you can give them a chance to do (and say) the right things. Of course, if you come out to them and tell them their biases bother you and they STILL continue with the sexist/racist/homophobic talk, we suggest making your family visits short and sweet and moving to a big city where you can create your own supportive friend network. Remember, you have control over where to spend your time. and if there’re not going to make a home in which you feel safe and valued, then you’re going to have to make one for yourself. There are a lot of people out there who are going to love you for exactly who you are. Hopefully your family steps up and shows you that they are just a few of these people.

One more thing: Okay, we know we just told you to go for the gold and bare your soul to your whole family, but we need to be very clear about something: if, on any level, there’s a part of you that’s telling you not to come out to your parents because there’s a possibility of violence or other shunning, do not do it without support and protection. Even if there is no threat of violence, understand that there may be some members of your family whose homophobia runs deeper than just homophobic jokes during the soup course. Some people hate gay people. It doesn’t matter how great you are; bigotry runs deep, and, if this happens, it will be extremely painful. Make sure you have someone to talk to through this (a good friend, a therapist, both…if you’re in college take advantage of whatever student services has to offer. Seriously…do it while it’s free.) As far as we’re concerned, shunning you would be their loss. Ultimately, you know your family better than we do. Protect yourself physically and emotionally.

Now…go steal some cereal from the school cafeteria, study hard for your finals, and get ready to don ye now your gay apparel. We’re rooting for you!

Jessica King & Julie Keck
Website / Twitter / Facebook

Julie Keck and Jessica King make movies and mischief as King is a Fink Productions. Recently they’ve stirred up trouble on the film festival scene, where they recently screened their documentary (w/ 5414 Productions) “A Second Knock at the Door” and their kinky cutie “Wiggle Room.” They currently serve as the Chief Creative and Operations Offices for the lesbian web content site tello films, which is ramping up to release their new web series I HATE TOMMY FINCH. In addition to all of this hoopla, Keck & King write feature scripts for other directors, consult on crowdfunding campaigns, and, apparently, give advice to lil baby gays. You can learn more about them at kingisafink.com, but if you really want to know what they’re up to, follow their twitterfeed immediately: @kingisafink.

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31 comments
  1. xmyrin said:

    I just wanted to say good luck to the LW and I hope everything goes well for her.

  2. robiewankenobie said:

    second the good luck!
    (also, i might suggest having a place to escape to should this all get too much for you)

    • JenniferP said:

      Yeah, just knowing she can go to a friend’s house or the movies and take a bit of time to herself is so important. PLAN breaks for yourself, letter writer! And good, good, good luck.

    • Jason said:

      I couldn’t agree with this comment any more. Good luck, and have an escape hatch prior to the conversation. I’m a straight white male, and I needed escape hatches when dealing with my family on much less controversial issues.

  3. commanderlogic said:

    ONE MORE one more thing: It’s gross, but I have to get a little mercenary for a sec. You don’t indicate in the letter part that I can read how you’re financing your education, nor how close you are to graduating. If your parents or other family members are monetarily involved in any way, you’ve got a decision, too, around how much of a risk it would be to your continuing education to come out.

    So really, just an amplification of what Jess and Julia said here: if, on any level, there’s a part of you that’s telling you not to come out to your parents because there’s a possibility of violence or other shunning, do not do it without support and protection.

    Support and protection includes having your financial ducks in a row. If those ducks are vaguely row-shaped already, then fire away! If not, there’s no judgement here if you choose to just let it go for another year, and break out the coming out advice above as soon as that last payment goes to the registrar or whoever gets it. You don’t have to be a martyr to The Truth.

    And as a final aside, if you decide not to come out this year, that doesn’t mean you have to take all the sexist, homophobic, and/or racist things your family says. I mean, you can just head down and let it wash over and past you, and that’s not a crime (consider the Litany of Fear). No one here will either know or judge you on it. But you can also do an all-fronts assault and not let ANYTHING they say that is offensive – in any way – slide. As I did with HusbandLogic’s brother. Hoo boy.

    “Yeah, that’s not funny.”
    “That’s offensive.”
    “You think that about women/gay people/[race]people? Huh.”
    “Wow.”

    Don’t defend your position, just let them sit with what they said, then change the subject. You’re not calling them out, you’re just not letting it go by unnoticed.

    • Great points, commanderlogic! Having financial ducks in a row is definitely important, especially for those in college. And it’s certainly not a race: if F&U isn’t ready, it’s not time. Thanks for commenting!

      • commanderlogic said:

        Thanks! Great advice from YOU!

        And yeah, it’s not a race, it’s a leisurely walk at the pace you set, F&U. You’ve got all of us rooting for you!

    • Doorslam said:

      I like to alternate between going very quiet and very serious when they expect you to laugh. Make eye contact and just frown at them. Sometimes that works a lot better than trying to convince them it’s wrong verbally.

      Or play naive and make them explain it until they feel silly, either because they can’t make you find it funny or because they realize how bad it is. People tend to not tell jokes if they think others won’t get it, but it takes a bit more effort and acting to pretend this way.

  4. Oliver Jones said:

    I would add that the LW might consider holding off if there is financial support that could be in jeopardy. The part about “financially stable” suggests maybe not, but it bears saying that no one has to sacrifice college/safety/food/shelter for the sake of being honest with homophobic relatives or being the standard bearer of some sort of Everyone Out of the Closet ideology. So if your parents are paying for college/living expenses, LW, waiting until you graduate/become independent to drop the bomb (if their behavior suggests a financial shunning is a real possibility) might be advisable.

  5. Oliver Jones said:

    Oh, I see Commander Logic already hit that point! Well, I second it.

    • commanderlogic said:

      I third! (Can I third a point that I made first? Whatever. Thanks for the signal boost, Oliver! Great minds and all that. :D)

  6. Lauren said:

    Also want to second: if it feels wrong, it’s wrong.

    Had to make some serious decisions in college about whether or not to continue spending time with my family, which also predicated deciding whether or not to continue to take their financial assistance. Eventually, I did the selfish thing. I took their money and stopped hanging out with them. For a long while. I reasoned that if they wanted to stop giving me their money, that was fine, but I wouldn’t turn down a free lunch even from people that insulted me if it meant it got me closer to reaching a long-term goal. The situation isn’t really close to the LW’s, but the sentiment was similar, I guess. Family is sitting around having a good time while actively mocking a major facet of your identity.

    I think the kicker was at a Christmas celebration when my family started making jokes about bastard children — in front of me, who was a single, unmarried mother, and my preschooler son. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last time. I scooped him up and said, “All right, folks, we’re fucking out. We might see you tomorrow when you unwrap gifts, or not. I don’t know yet.” Of course, the family did backflips to apologize and insist that it was an accident, they didn’t MEAN to hurt anyone’s feelings, and that I couldn’t ruin Christmas by leaving like that. But I left. We came back the next day to unwrap presents, but left immediately afterward.

    As it turns out, the distance gave everyone enough space to eventually be friendly and polite again and sometimes resemble a real family. I won’t lie, it took several years, and it’s always there. One of the great things about adulthood is being able to put distance between yourself and all that familial dysfunction you had to live with as a kid. I’m not a forgive-and-forget Pollyanna, so my advice when it comes to asshole family is to enjoy what you can on your terms, and eff the rest, also on your terms.

    Good luck, letter writer. Maybe you’ll update us?

  7. Dorothy said:

    Oh, I would add that I wish you would be able to have a supportive person (or persons) near you as you come out to your family. It’s so difficult to be in a situation alone, with a “them against me” scenario. To have someone supportive beside you, if you do decide to come out, would be, to me, the optimum thing, someone to turn to for comfort and strength, maybe from a local LGBT group in the city?

    GOOD LUCK TO YOU!!!

  8. Rei said:

    Great advice all around here. Good luck, LW.

  9. When you have some BIG NEWS to tell your family there’s usually two basic pitfalls. One is THE FEAR that they will say/do something awful and hurtful. The other is THE FANTASY of how they would react if they were the parents you always wanted.

    Your parents will not react in either of these ways, of course. They will react in a way that makes you simultaneously say “Wow, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be! I should have told them sooner” and also “wow, my parents are really insensitive and don’t understand me at all. Telling them was a mistake.”

    I don’t know if it helps to know this in advance, but just in case, there you go.

    • Great points! Humans are VERY good at overthinking and overplanning and HORRIBLE at actually predicting what’s going to happen. You’re totally right, though: reality will fall somewhere between the FEAR and the FANTASY. Thanks for chiming in!

  10. Good luck LW!

    Here is a story for you: my parents are not the homophobic joke making type. But they are the nice middle class Catholic democrat types. When my brother came out to them, my mom started off with “it’s fine to be gay, just don’t act like it because CATHOLIC!” Then she went to “we should find your brother a nice, upright gay lawyer or whatever to date.” And lately she’s been all “what? You say you are poly, and one of your boyfriends is transgender? How nice. Thank you for telling us that. What was that you were saying about his being a French Lit Professor? Tell us more about the FRENCH PROFESSING!! SO COOL. Also, is he coming home with you for Thanksgiving?”

    The point there is… it’s a journey. And people can go from one place to another when they didn’t think they would or could, when it’s a matter of love for their child.

    • NessieMonster said:

      Ahh, it’s nice to hear a story like that that ends so well. People can and do make the journey from making homophobic jokes and using gay as an insult to being ‘wow, how was that ever an issue for me? Being gay is just one awesome part of who someone is’. I should know. Looking at my teenage self is mighty embarassing sometimes!

      Best of luck LW in which ever course you go with. Hope your family surprise you in a good way if you do bring it up. :)

  11. kate said:

    When you share the news, your family will have a lot of questions. Other than silly ones like “are you sure?”, leading the way in their thoughts, at least, will be, “Why is she telling us this? What does she want from us?” (People are self-centered, after all; they want to know what it has to do with *them*).

    Especially if your family is truly homophobic, not just clueless and insensitive, I would suggest starting small. Say you’re telling them because you want your relationship to be based on honesty. That wondering, in light of their jokes, whether they love you only because they don’t know this about you sucks. And that really, you’d be pretty happy for the holidays if they could just say “Huh! Who’d have thought? Don’t know how I feel about that!” and go on with whatever they’d ordinarily be doing, only without the offensive jokes.

    I get the impression a lot of conservative/anti-gay religious/homophobic people, when someone comes out to them, interpret the announcement as a demand that they accept homosexuality on a sort of policy-wide-level… which, depending on their background, religious beliefs, and ideological flexibility, may be more than they can manage on short notice (or maybe ever).

    If you make it clear that all you want right now is for them to know, to not flip out about it or try to “convert” you, and to stop telling jokes at the expense of gay people, they may be more able to say “I can do that.”

    The rest you can work on over time — or not. Some of your family members will probably achieve genuine acceptance, while others never will. You may find that this much is enough for you.

    As always, good luck (and courage). I had to “come out” on a different issue, not one so central to my being or so threatening to other people’s values, so definitely not in the same league. Still, it was hard at first, as the folks were up at arms at what they perceived as a “rebellion.” But it felt sooooo good to be honest, things eventually cooled down, and I have been glad ever since that my relationship with my parents was based on truth.

  12. xenu01 said:

    For me, it was always really hard to talk to the Whole Family, because it turned into an Us vs You event and of course, being the “sensitive one” or whatever, the clear answer seems to be “well, why don’t you just suck it up or leave?” If not in so many words, things can still turn into this icky cycle where family members back each other up and you just look like the Bad Guy, you know?

    The only solution for me was (this applies to Thanksgiving for me, but it can really work for any holiday):
    1) Time off. This applies to holidays when you are with your family and holidays when you are not. If you are home, take lots of walks. And don’t be afraid to say, “I just need to clear my thoughts, thanks!” Or be a very diligent student, and work on an imaginary overdue paper that lets you be in your room or out at a cafe for a few hours alone. Time Off also applies to not going home for the holidays. This does not have to be a statement you are making, if you are not ready! It can just be, “so much to do, can’t get away, I’ll come next time, sorry!”
    I had some of the best Thanksgivings of my life when I did this, because I had dinner with my friends, at my place, and it was fantastic because no stupid judgements, because friends are the family you choose for yourself.
    2) Have an ally. I have a partner now who is really supportive and in my corner, but before him, I started inviting my best friend over for Thanksgiving dinner. This has a twofold advantage. First, you can clue in your friend about how stressful this is, promise you will buy him/her dinner or take them to a movie soon to pay them back for being in your corner, and then you get a secret ally! Your friend, being an outsider, may cause family members to be more behaved than usual, but if they are still making with the homophobia, etc, you have someone to take a walk with after dinner and be like, “Did you HEAR what my brother said? OMG.”
    3) If and when ONLY!! that you are ready to come out, Divide and Conquer is your friend. Tell the family member that you feel is the least likely to make you feel awful. Is this one of your parents? Is this an aunt or uncle? Tell that person first, and now you have another possible ally at holiday times. Eventually, you can tell one of your parents. When you feel safe doing so. Just remember: Divide and Conquer!

    Just a warning (and others above me have said similar): when I came out to my mother as bisexual, she thought I was joking. Or getting revenge on her. Or something. It was very upsetting. Please be prepared for some reactions you never anticipated, and stay strong and awesome!

    Sorry this is so tl:dr.

    • Love the “time off” and “have an ally” ideas. These discussions, even when they go well, can be intense. Give yourself (and your family) a break if needed. And it’s always easier with a buddy.

  13. Doorslam said:

    If you don’t want to come out, you can also express how stressful you find being around them when they make jokes like that, on a purely emotional level. You can blame it on friends or just people you met, even. You can let them know you won’t be visiting or will be cutting your visit short because of how bad you feel when they make mean jokes. Sometimes they’ll be willing to change just to have you around.

  14. Not Quite As Frustrated Or Upset said:

    Hey all, Letter Writer here! Thanks for the advice in both the column proper and the comments–it was all very helpful.

    I’m talking to the coordinator of my university’s LGBT resource center about possible options for me if my parents do decide to stop helping me financially, though I think the probability of that is low. I’m also arranging an alternate ride to the airport at the end of my stay home and making sure I am 100% financially prepared for the next quarter, just in case I’m going to be trucking it alone for a while.

    I’m going to start telling my family at the beginning of the last week of winter break–long enough so we can have Important Talks, but short enough that I’ll be able to leave right after (or sleep on someone else’s couch for a short while before leaving, if necessary). I’m still planning out what I’m going to say…it’s kind of hard. The comments were really helpful there–kate’s comment especially, so thank you, kate–but I’m definitely going to write up what I’m going to say letter-style first. And then maybe practice it a few times. (Somewhere other than in my house, because that would be an awful way to come out and I do not live in a sitcom.)

    I’m still terrified to come out to my dad–part of me is going, “well, maybe I can just come out to everyone else…maybe no one will tell him,” even though that makes no sense–but I’m going to. Wish me luck.

    Thanks for all the good wishes. I’ll update you on how it goes.

    • xenu01 said:

      Way to go! Crossing my fingers for you- this is going to be so hard, I know, but also on the other side you get to be honest about a really important part of you. Stay strong and don’t forget that you’re amazing!

    • kate said:

      Glad that seemed helpful. I think it would also be good to have a few unemotional responses up your sleeve. In other words, when you’re working on your script, don’t focus all your energy on that initial announcement and leave yourself fumbling for what the hell to say if/when your family members respond badly. (If you weren’t expecting them to do that, after all, you wouldn’t have written).

      Some suggestions: “Emotions seem to be running pretty high. I trying to cut you some slack because I understand you are feeling shocked, and it will take you a while to adjust to the idea. But I am who I am (and I’m not ashamed of who I am) and there is a limit to what I can hear from you without doing irreversible damage to our relationship. What do you say we put a moratorium on this subject for the rest of the holidays?”

      “I am not going to discuss this with you all as a mob.”

      “This is about as personal a subject as there is. I told you about it because I want you to know me, not because I expected you to be thrilled, or so we could put it up for a vote. I’m gay. That’s a fact, and no amount of discussion is going to change it. The only thing this conversation will affect is what kind of relationship I have with you in the future.”

      “I don’t think that’s any of your business. I don’t ask about your sex life, and I’d appreciate the same courtesy.”

      “God, cousin Billy — grow up!!” (Just kidding).

      If you need to leave, use a variation on #1, where you skip over the moratorium bit and say “I think it would be best for everyone if I leave.”

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